Slowly Down the Lower Ganges Canal

The sun is quite high already, glinting on the brown waters of the canal. Faint traces of mist rise near the bridge, and in the distance, smoke from the Panki power house. To our right, a boundary wall protects desolate fields of tall grass: buffalo graze inside. My brother and I lock our bicycles at the bicycle repairman's shanty just before the bridge, and I produce the bright yellow inflatable raft from my backpack.

In the five minutes it takes to inflate the raft, the normally deserted juncture of canal and road suddenly comes to life. A number of people on the roads adjoining the canal come over to watch us. We can hear snatches of conversation - technological intricacies being explained to the less gifted: how the valves work, how the oars are threaded, and how this huge yellow contraption came out of that little bag there... A bus on the road to Shiuli slows down because of the crowd, and comes to a stop on the bridge. Passengers on the roof and doorway have a grand view of the proceedings.

Considerably flustered, the two of us quickly launch and clamber on. The merciful current carries us gently away from the shore, the bridge, and the onlookers. A faint breeze, and the tall reeds sway on either side of the canal. Ruins of a red brick house pass us on the right; near them, a little boy writing on the ground with a stick. There is a sense of timelessness in the water; the smooth surface, unhurried pace, occasional birdsong from a tree. The colour has leached out of the landscape under the intense sun, and our boat is a vivid blotch of colour. Gradually, the bridge becomes smaller behind us. An occasional bicyclist goes by on the adjoining path. Ahead of us is Panki, whose huge power pylons accompany us along the canal.

Here we are, two Indians floating down a canal that the British built, in a raft that was made in Taiwan and purchased in the US. All around us, most people have never been more than a few kilometers from their place of birth. One wonders about the contrast between our cloistered world teaching advanced materials from foreign books, and the realities of this world beyond. I have been here for only a few months now, and even in the rarefied atmosphere of the campus I often feel different; traces of U.S. linger in my bicycle helmet and the shorts that I wear to work in the summer, and, more importantly, in my attitude. What I like about I.I.T. though is that it may actually absorb all this, which is more than can be said perhaps of many other institutions in India. I have always felt that the greatness of an academic institution is in direct proportion to the number of non-conformists on campus, and this analogy holds right up to and beyond the edge - the proportion of confirmed lunatics is surprisingly high in institutions such as MIT and Berkeley, and I am told that there are quite a few of them here as well.

In the meanwhile, the Panki power house is looming above us. There is a drop in the canal here, where the water rushes over a parapet, a fall of about six feet. A sentry up on top of the huge building watches us, and some street urchins are now running alongside, chattering to friends: Come Atty, come see this strange "anno." To the right is a large grating, the water intake for the power house. A dead buffalo is stuck here, poisoning the air all around. Dead bodies float down quite frequently I am told, including suicides, some from the very bridge we had started from.

The parapet has come, and we pull the boat onto a bank, walk past the rolling waters, and launch it again on the other side. The street urchins fall in behind us. In the process of launching, my chappals, which are in a plastic bag, get dumped into the water and are carried off. Sadly, I watch them bobbing down ahead.

The waters here are still a little frothy from the fall, and the current a little quicker. Trailing my hand in the water, I feel the stream get warmer suddenly - the discharge from Panki. Further down there is an branch with the sign: "Drinking water supply, City of Kanpur." Underneath is an impressive list of fines and imprisonments that could ensue from acts such as washing and bathing in the water. A few meters down a man in white dhoti and dark skin stands oblivious, soaping himself in the glistening sunshine.

Just then I catch sight of the fugitive package with my sandals. It hasn't sunk yet! Paddle, paddle and we catch up with it. It has got stuck on a breach in the left bank where the canal has eaten its way through to the cemented canal path. Along with it in this nook are other hubris of civilization - polythene bag, red agarbatti box, white plastic cap cracked at the thread. Civilization has also sprung up on both sides of us. To the right, the huge mechanisms of the power plant. To the left the township of Panki. Bicycle traffic on the adjoining path has gone up.

After another bridge, the vista improves, with large willows overhanging the canal from both sides and confining us in our canal microcosm. The current is slower and we try our erratic oars from time to time, but are largely content to float along. The Panki chimney is behind us now, spewing its smoke into a dense dancing woolstring in the sky. Hidden in the rushes with an umbrella stuck into the ground is a rod-fisherman, his string disappearing patiently in the stream.

We are approaching another bridge now, a brick arch structure of definite British construction - Kalpi road. On the mud flats before the bridge a series of six little alcoves with their resident deities and the mandatory clump of yellow flowers on top and petals all around. Women bathing, and men lounging in the dark ledge beneath the arch.

I have been planning to go down the canal ever since I discovered it in my first week on a bicycle ramble. I went down the adjoining path for a few bumpy kilometers and the canal gave every impression of continuing for a long while. Enquiries revealed little; someone in the Civil Engineering Department knew a few things about the canal, but I couldn't find him. So on this fine morning, we have just decided to go out and find out for ourselves. What we didn't know was that the raft has a leak! It is a small one, and it keeps on discharging air below with a disconcerting brr-krrbr sound, and once in a while when we shift position on the boat, a huge bubble of accumulated air will burp out from one side or the other. Babun is not a keen swimmer, and he doesn't fancy the water in the canal, and this sound certainly is not helping his mental peace. We pull up to reinflate it and check up on what lies ahead, since we have not reconnoitered beyond this point. There is a fork ahead, someone says, and the right branch leads all the way to Fatehpur and beyond. The left branch goes somewhere into the city, he thinks.

The currents under the arch look fairly intense. We push off carefully and go under another bridge - the railway line to Jhansi. Immediately there is a sense of expansion and peace - a large walled compound on the right - probably the Indian Oxygen Ltd., and to the left is a railway yard. But we have to be very careful around here, there may be sudden drops in the level, and we could get into trouble very quickly. An occasional tattered black umbrella betrays a fisherman hidden beneath it.

A few trucks lie in semi-abandon on the grass to our left. There is an iron bridge across the canal - seems like a drop - yes, it is - paddle to shore for the carry. Ahead is a decrepit built-up area, a shanty town with people everywhere. An old house to the left suddenly says - "Lower Ganges Canal Authority, Kanpur Branch." These are the folks who have put up the notice upstream about drinking water. Suddenly, the canal seems to be ending - there are some iron gates rising up from the canal. Closer up we realize that the iron gates are a kind of valve, and that the main canal turns right here, while a part of the canal goes straight after a drop of about twenty feet. This is the "fork." A lot of thatched roofs surround us, and many people are out and about. We are moving forward cautiously, ready to grab the edge at quick notice, when we come to the bend where it goes under a very low walkway, all around which a number of dhobis are thrashing clothes passionately.

Initially we reckon that the walkway is high enough for us to squeeze underneath, but Babun bangs his head on the concrete tablet that constitutes the bridge. He manages to pull himself up and out of the boat. I am wedged in with the boat, and the current, which is stronger here since it is narrower, is shaking me and rushing past angrily. The crowd is surging forward, sensing an event of interest. Unwilling to give up, I manage to lie down and squeeze underneath the walkway, but it is a pyrrhic victory, for the boat is now full of water and we need to pull up on shore to shake it dry. I am deeply wet. Meanwhile, a formidable crowd has gathered and people want to know where we are coming from. We also ask them about the way ahead, and they tell us that there is a dangerously sharp fall coming up. However, we can see that it is clear for a while at least, so we push off into the privacy of the stream as fast as we can.

Why is it that such crowds at close quarters bother us so much? There could be an element of fear, perhaps, but that is really not rational. There is a vague sense of unease; maybe the close proximity of such a large crowd violates our personal space (which is of course greater in the west than in India.) Or is it just because these people, poorer and dirtier as a class, are unsavoury to us? It is difficult to say, but certainly the crowds are a little disconcerting, if not intimidating.

We are now in a wide flat stretch, with grass on both sides. In the distance ahead of us is the curved sweep of a large road bridge. There are no houses here, but the crowd has not left us. On both sides, fifteen to twenty people walk alongside. I have misplaced my towel after drying myself and am searching all over when someone from the shore shouts - it's on my shoulder... The privacy and peace is lost but it is still fun, floating slowly downstream, though there is the tension of the drop ahead. We find it about half a kilometer down; it can be heard clearer than it can be seen. There is a body of water continuing straight but most of the water is going left into a tributary canal, falling off to the left into a tributary canal without warning. After we pull the boat out, we have to decide which stream to follow. The straight one looks like the original canal, so we decide to try that. Someone says that it is broken ahead, but some others think it goes on to Fatehpur. In any event, we walk for a bit - this is a sluice gate; the water has been dammed up behind it, and a frothy flow appears from beneath the gate. The canal ahead has steep banks and shallow water. After we launch the boat, we find ourselves going backwards - the strong current in the middle has created a reverse flow at the edges. Paddling to the center of the stream sets us moving in the right direction again. The canal is very shallow here, and at times, reeds or bamboo spikes are showing through.

At the end of this stream there is a small fall. We are feeling brave this time; we grab a branch before the drop, and discuss if we could try to take it on the raft. We are both pretty wet anyhow, and this is after all a raft, poorer cousin to true whitewater rafts! So we let go and the current sucks us into and over the fall of two feet. Water all around us in a blur of brown and white and the columns of the bridge rushing past and more water comes clammily into the boat. The current is still quite strong and when we are at the drop we notice a number of buffalo in the water right ahead of us. They are panicstruck to see us coming and bolt for the shore, huge black masses moving rather quickly. We are petrified - the last one lunges when we are almost on top of it, paddling hard to the other side. Though there is no mishap, we break off to take the water out.

From now on, the canal is really shallow. We are on the bottom of the original canal, and you can see the watermarks on the steep banks. A bit further down, past the tall arc of the bridge, the waters take a last plunge over a parapet, and peter out into a little stream to the right. This, I am told, is the Pandu river. (Some weeks later, I saw the same river in the town of Shiuli, where it looked a more respectable stream, and a boatman took us across pulling on a rope tied at both sides).

Bedraggled and tired, we get out, deflate the boat in the relative privacy of a dozen onlookers, and hitch a ride on a truck. In three hours we have come nine or ten kilometers, traversing vast panoramas of mental attitude. From the cab of the truck, one can see the brown waters of the canal still glinting in the afternoon sun.

Though the conclusion of this article is that the canal may be petering out after Kanpur, it is possible for one of the other branches of the canal to continue to Allahabad, as designed.


I.I.T. = Indian Institute of Technology. Here we are referring to the one at Kanpur. There are others at Bombay, Delhi, Kharagpur and Madras, and one under construction in Gauhati. The author is an asst professor here.

Kanpur = most populous city in Uttar Pradesh. Industrial city on the Ganga with old, polluting industries like leather. See WWW entries on Ganga and Uttar Pradesh.

Panki = place near kanpur where the Uttar Pradesh State Electricity Board runs a power station.

Though the conclusion of this article is that the canal may be petering out after Kanpur, it is possible for one of the other branches of the canal to continue to Allahabad, as designed.

Copyright © 1993 Amitabha Mukerjee (